Argentina’s Milei takes his chainsaw to the state, cutting 15,000 jobs and spurring protests

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — Argentina said Wednesday that it had cut 15,000 state jobs as part of President Javier Milei’s aggressive campaign to slash spending, the latest in a series of painful economic measures that have put the libertarian government on a collision course with angry protesters and powerful trade unions.

Presidential spokesperson Manuel Adorni announced the job cuts in a news conference, portraying them as key to Milei’s promised shake-up of Argentina’s bloated public sector.

“It’s part of the work we are doing to reduce state expenses,” he told reporters, describing the dismissed workers as a drag on taxpayers.

“They perhaps did not have a very defined job,” he said.

Hundreds of defiant employees — some notified of their termination last week and others before that — stormed their workplaces in Buenos Aires and nearby cities on Wednesday, beating drums, decrying their dismissal as unjust and demanding their reinstatement.

Despite the rain, crowds wearing the green T-shirts of the country’s biggest union, The Association of State Workers, or ATE, swelled outside national ministries. In some cases, scuffles erupted as police struggled to evict protesters from government buildings.

Workers at ministries that Mileli has vowed to close, such as the National Institute Against Discrimination, along with a range of state agencies — including the ministries for the economy, energy and social security — received the latest layoff notices.

“These layoffs have a face, they have a family, they have real needs in this context of great change and great poverty in Argentina,” Mercedes Cabezas, a secretary-general of ATE, told The Associated Press outside the Ministry of Labor as protesters pumped their fists and chanted around her.

“The impact runs very deep because it’s combined with the reduction of social programs, so what we end up with is increasing poverty,” she said.

Milei campaigned for president while brandishing a chainsaw — promising to fix Argentina’s long-troubled economy by chopping down the size of the state. Determined to balance the country’s budget, he has slashed energy and transportation subsidies, halted public works, cut payments to provincial governments and devalued the peso by over 50% to close the gap between the official exchange rate and the black market rate.

However, that has hiked inflation, making it even harder for struggling Argentines to make ends meet.

Even before last week, when 41-year-old Hernán Silva still had his job at the National Road Safety Agency that paid a basic monthly salary of $250, he was stressed about not having enough money “for anything” as the prices of fuel, meat and medication surged.

“I was barely making it to the end of the month,” he said. After 14 years at the road safety agency, his boss called last Wednesday to tell him — and 20 of his colleagues — it was their final day.

Silva and his colleagues tried to force their way into their office on Wednesday — the first day back at work after a holiday week in Argentina — but gave up when managers threatened to call the police.

“My only plan right now is to fight for my job because this is unfair,” he said. Neither he nor his colleagues had received official termination notices.

Despite limited tussles with officers, Wednesday’s protests were largely peaceful. Police were out in force downtown, a reminder of the government’s wider pledge to curb demonstrations that turn disruptive.

Those who burst into public buildings, spokesperson Adorni warned, “will suffer the consequences.”

Argentina’s trade unions — among the sectors most hurt by Milei’s overhaul — appeared undeterred. Union officials pledged a mass general strike. Fired workers vowed to keep showing up at their offices.

“We will continue mobilizing” said Cabezas. “Our fight is just starting.”

The confrontation, analysts warn, could derail Milei’s dogged push to achieve a zero budget deficit by the year’s end.

“They are walking a very thin line,” said Martin Planes from Cefeidas, a Buenos Aires-based political advisory group. “They need to go deeper with their measures to cut spending, but they need to prevent social unrest.”

Isabel Debre, The Associated Press